Saturday, June 24, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1653: Waylon Jennings

I recently took a deep dive into two artists that I’d known for years but never fully explored. The results, as often is the case with such endeavours, were mixed.

This next artist is a case in point, where some of his albums were gems and some trash, but most often they were a bit of both.

Disc 1653 is…Are You Ready for the Country

Artist: Waylon Jennings

Year of Release: 1976

What’s up with the Cover?  Waylon stands, fingers looped into his belt, cigarette dangling from his lip and hands festooned with rings. This is the seventies outlaw personified. Based solely on the photo, should you trust this man? In a fight, yes. With your daughter? Not so much.

How I Came To Know It: Somebody recently parted with their Waylon Jennings albums, as my local record store was festooned with old albums like this one. I did a quick n’ dirty listen to a bunch online and then went back and bought the four I liked best. This was one of them.

How It Stacks Up: I already had one Waylon Jennings album so because of that earlier paragraph, plus the power of math, I now have five. Of those five I’ll put “Are You Ready for the Country” in at #4.

Rating: 2 stars but almost 3

A great voice can get you out of a lot of trouble in music, but it can’t fully rescue Waylon Jennings on “Are You Ready for the Country”.

Waylon Jennings can sing with the best of ‘em, with a rich baritone full of gravel and hurt. Jennings can sound both stoic and vulnerable at the same time, and he has the phrasing of born storyteller. The question on each of his records is more about how he decides to employ that talent.

Jennings is a songwriter, but like other songwriting greats of the era (Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash) he’s not averse to doing covers. His best effort on this record is a rousing version of the Marshall Tucker Band’s already rousing, “Can’t You See”. Jennings strips out a lot of the production and countrifies the song to good effect. He delivers it with a back-throated croon that evokes pickup trucks and dusty country roads. Solid.

On other covers his vocals are just as stellar but the songs cannot be saved. On Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” Jennings changes the lyrics in the chorus from “Are you ready for the country/Because it’s time to go” to “Are you ready for the country/Are you ready for me?” Taking a war protest song and making it all about you is not a loveable outlaw move – it’s just awkward.

On his cover of Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” the song is already one of the all-time most awkward ever written. With lyrics about cake in the rain and a maudlin story that makes you want to slap the narrator out of their pathetic wallow, there is nothing Waylon could have done to fix this one. Well, there is one thing – don’t sing this risible and inexplicably enduring piece-of-shit song.

I’m not sure what Waylon was getting up to back in 1976 but based on a few of his song choices, I’ll warrant it was not good. “So Good Woman” is about acknowledging he’s not worthy of his woman’s love, and “I’ll Go Back To Her” is about crawling back to said woman after cheating on her. I found myself sympathetic to the woman in both instances, hoping in the latter instance that she’d already changed the locks.

This record has a few hidden gems. “Them Old Love Songs” is a mournful tune of a man wishing he could find true love. It is touching and tender, and it helps that you hear this one before the two cheating songs. It’s the “I like long walks on the beach” of a dating profile before you meet the guy and find out he’s a schmuck.

I also dig “A Couple More Years” which is a song about experience talking to youth in a tender, non-judgmental kind of way. Jennings does a great job of evoking wisdom with a hint of weariness.

Old Friend” is a Jennings original that possesses a good bounce. It captures the natural ease of old friendships and the acceptance of loss when one of them departs. At first, I found myself wondering if he was referencing a member of his outlaw country cadre: Kris, Johnny or Willie maybe? On repeat listens, it feels more like looking back on a friend that has died. Either way, the song walks that delicate line of missing someone, but also remembering all the good times that were had before they left us.

I hovered between two and three stars for this record. For sheer musicianship and delivery it easily hits over three. But then I remembered having to listen to over six minutes of “MacArthur Park” every time I put it on. Not cool, Waylon, not cool. Two stars for you.

Best tracks: Them Old Love Songs, Can’t You See, A Couple More Years, Old Friend

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